Do you write flash fiction? Either as your primary form or as a way to practice writing?
I was reintroduced to the form last year by my friend and mentor, Rachel Crawford, co-editor of Her: Texas, an anthology of fiction and nonfiction, poetry, song, painting and photography by 60+ Texas women. As with anything suggested by successful people in my life, I immediately wanted to know more.
What is it? Back in the day, we just called it a “short short story,” but kids these days call it “flash.” In a nutshell (a very small nutshell – think pistachio, not walnut), flash fiction is a complete story in very few words. It has a protagonist, conflict and a resolution. How many words exactly? Some sources say less than 2K, some say less than 1K. Micro-fiction, a sub-classification of flash fiction, is usually 300 words or less.
Who to read? Chances are you have already read some flash fiction if you’ve read short short stories by Chekhov, O. Henry, or Hemingway. Google “flash fiction” and you will find a treasure trove. Do your own homework and dive in, but for starters, here are 12 Super Short Stories You Can Read in a Flash. Bon appetit.
But I don’t just read flash for fun. I read it to learn. I write it to learn as well. My personal goal is to write 1-2 flash pieces per week. Here’s why.
1. The economy required necessitates doing away with all of the things that bog down the writing. I can’t waste words on backstory, telling instead of showing, dialogue tags, long-winded descriptions, or even adverbs. As my eleventh grade English teacher would say, “Omit useless words!” Every word has to have a purpose – preferably more than one. (If you’re reading this, Mrs. Stanton, you were right!)
2. It’s a great exercise in starting with the action. No one wants to read a story that starts with a preamble. And when writing flash, you can’t use up your word count including it. Stace Budzko, writer and Instructor of “10 Weeks/10 Stories” at Grub Street says, “Think: the final gesture of a love affair, or the start of a good old-fashioned gang fight.” (Read more here.) Who doesn’t love a good gang fight, amiright?
3. I like the high demand on my creative stores. Telling a story, creating a character the reader is invested in, and giving markers as to time and space in less than 1000 words? Challenge accepted.
4. This is a great way to make sure I write every day. If I’m stuck on a larger project, or simply in research phase, I can still do some actual writing (or revising) every day. It fits well with the rhythms of family life. When I’ve thought through what I want to write (usually while folding laundry, washing dishes or scrubbing toilets), I can shoo the kids out the door to hunt worms and frogs and just about the time they start fighting hammer and tongs, I have pounded out a draft of my 800 words. When they nap, I can revise (or write a blog post, or do some research, or whatever I want to get done that day).
5. When I pass it off to my writer friends for their feedback, it doesn’t require them to block out a day or longer to give it their full attention. They can read it, think about it, and respond with helpful comments in a few hours or less. I appreciate my friends’ willingness to help, and I don’t want to monopolize their time.
How do I do it? I get my ideas from interesting people I see or from events from real life. Next, I think about the story arc, about the conflict and how to best show the reader who the characters are. The number of characters is usually fewer than three, but this week’s work-in-progress has seven. Is each one a major player? Of course not. But if a high school English teacher forced a student to dissect the piece and give details about each character with supporting evidence from the text? Doable. (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Stanton.) Omitting useless words goes for speakers, too. Dialogue is sparse and multi-purpose. Generally, a speaker gets one sentence or phrase in the entire piece. There may only be one or two spoken phrases in total. In those phrases, I give hints as to character’s motivation and personality as well as drive the plot forward and/or reveal conflict.
Flash is a great exercise in saying exactly what I mean, and for me, a good way to get better at something I enjoy. It’s a game, an assignment, and it usually ends up in a drawer. But it’s fun and really gets my brain buzzing. Since I’ve cut back on caffeine, I really need that. Try it and let me know what you think.